A few days after Solange Knowles released her first album in eight years, “A Seat at the Table,” she dropped two new music videos. There is one for “Don’t Touch My Hair” that features the throaty baritone and presence of the British electronic-music producer Sampha and another for “Cranes in the Sky”—a song that hits with a cathartic, weightless chorus that may send a listener into a round of leaps, pirouettes, and earthly affirmations. The videos are similar not only in their individual parts—clothes, color palette, choreography, mood, and even melody—but as whole experiences. When we are shown a tableau of black men with delicate perms dressed in green sweatshirts, or Solange painted gold and sitting poised on rock, these scenes are neither an unambiguous nod to “the ancestors” nor a catalogue of blackness. They weave in and out of expectation, neither over-conscious nor hyper-defiant; they manage to be exactly what they want to be.
I first came across the videos on Solange’s Web site, solangemusic.com, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Solange co-directed them with her husband, the music-video director Alan Ferguson (clean, crisp angles), and collaborated on art direction with the Spanish photographer Carlota Guerrero (the muted, feminine desert aesthetic). But the cinematographer credit struck me: it was Arthur Jafa, who is best known for his work on Julie Dash’s seminal 1991 film “Daughters of the Dust,” which was in turn a big influence on Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.”
Jafa has described how his career as a cinematographer went downhill after “Daughters of the Dust” because of the creative restrictions of working within the studio system for strong-minded auteurs. He won Best Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival for his work on “Daughters,” a film that, through fact, fiction, and experiment, tells the story of a black Geechee community off the coast of South Carolina that must decide whether to leave its isolated, culturally-rich world behind and move to mainland America. Together, Dash and Jafa created colorful, lasting images of black people who wear Victorian dress and commune on beaches and in forests. Interestingly, Dash chose indigo-stained hands, instead of lash wounds or cotton-pricked fingers, as the physical mark of slavery in the film—no matter that, in reality, indigo wouldn’t stain the skin permanently. The film creates a powerful, expressive visual language rather than offering up tropes and shorthand. In 2016, “Lemonade,” with its images of black women in white dresses on the beach and in old-fashioned lace dresses on a Southern-style porch, made use of that same language to articulate Beyoncé’s Louisiana Creole and black Alabama origins—and her own self-determined future.
“Lemonade” gave Dash an overdue introduction into mainstream black popular consciousness, and perhaps Solange’s videos will do the same for Jafa. After “Daughters,” he shot Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn” but never again worked with the director, instead going on to direct his own short films and documentaries, including the unapologetically imagistic “Dreams Are Colder Than Death,” in 2013—a meditation on black America and the legacy of the March on Washington that featured artists and thinkers such as Kara Walker, Wangechi Mutu, Hortense Spillers, and Charles Burnett. Jafa’s artistic presence is immediately felt in the Solange videos. In “Don’t Touch My Hair,” each scene falls into a loose, unhurried narrative, linked by tone. The stretches of Solange’s and Sampha’s improvised grooving that follow the choreographed sequences present not an interruption but an easy crescendo. Many moments in the video contain both still, tableau-like images and hypnotic, syncopated movements. Jafa doesn’t overdetermine the space he shoots but finds its best angle—often canted and filled with as much depth as proximity. There seems to be a light haze over each image, an after-the-rain texture and coloring that gives the viewer a sense that each image was not simply produced and processed but lived in.
Jafa, who lives in Los Angeles and is fifty-five, currently has an exhibition at the Hammer Museum, in Los Angeles, titled “Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only.” It features not his film stills or photographs but rather two hundred three-ring binders he assembled, filled with images cut out from books, magazines, and newspapers. Each laminated spread includes two or more images that are somehow in conversation, whether in terms of movement, color, texture, or composition: a black-and-white newspaper clipping of Serena Williams in tight black athletic shorts jumping to serve, head to the sky, next to a black-and-white photograph of a naked, sinewy man in a graceful leap, head to the sky; Abraham Lincoln layered over an advertising image of a glass of Southern Comfort, next to an ancient skull with an underbite; a photograph of Native American chief smoking a cigar, juxtaposed with a photograph of a slave with severe lash marks on his back.
The binders are part of Jafa’s obsessive cultural archiving, which he feels is an important mode of black cultural production and a particular kind of black aesthetic. Jafa outlined this theory in a lecture he gave at M.I.T., in 2013. If much of the black American archive is nonexistent or lost—since much of black American culture is rooted in oral tradition and black American life was terrorized by slavery—then a black aesthetic does not simply materialize but needs to be decided upon and situated in time and space. According to Jafa, music has already decided on its blackness—there have been endless hits, classics, innovations, and surprises by an incredible range of black musicians from Bessie Smith to Andre 3000 (and American music is, for the most part, black American music)—while the images of black American culture remain unclaimed and in flux. But to name an aesthetic as “black” is not to claim that “black” is any one image, sound, or artistic choice. An aesthetic is a set of principles or a mode of construction; not all black artists will have a black aesthetic, and not all works with a black aesthetic will have been made by a black artist.
I’ll admit that I’ve had a hard time figuring out what exactly a black aesthetic would or could be when I look at work by Carrie Mae Weems or Isaac Julien or listen to the Wu-Tang Clan or Whitney Houston or read Marie NDiaye. There is some creative form of production I understand as having to do with blackness, which somehow exists within the endlessly connected black diaspora, but many of those links—between black artists, between works of art and their black creators, and even between countries and continents—have seemed stretchy if not tenuous. But now, considering Jafa’s two hundred binders and these two videos, the very act of bringing seemingly disparate parts together, of archiving—of frantically searching for associations, links, and lineages, and then assembling them over and over—stands out as a kind of work or mode that the experience of blackness might have produced.
The “Cranes in the Sky” video begins with a series of living images, a succession of careful D.I.Y. compositions. Solange wears a coat made out of thick pink foam, a banana-leaf skirt, and purple yarn dress. The images recall Alejandro Jodorowsky and Diana Ross, Minnie Riperton with her ice-cream cone and Spike Jonze’s “Her,” but they have their own aspect, and fall into their own set of principles. Jafa allows natural light to shape each image, and tends to give each inch of the frame equal weight, even when a human figure sits at the center. A desert scene is spectacular in allowing a hill of sand to seem flat and almost on the same plane as the dull blue sky—the two bodies that dance on the horizon are not spotlighted but create their own space.
Hollywood, and the American film industry at large, has been hostile to black difference, and therefore to the kind of varied, original black cultural production Jafa speaks of. Both Jafa’s and Dash’s careers—“Daughters” was her only major feature, though she went on to make work for TV and direct videos for cultural institutions such as the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center—are glaring examples of the film industry’s strict limitations for black artistry. As a result, the music video—a moving-image form that has been glanced over by major validating institutions, perhaps because its vanguards (to borrow a term from the MTV Video Music Awards) have primarily been black, eccentric, and not college-educated—has reëmerged as an essential medium for a black aesthetic. For proof, we can look to the filmmaker Kahlil Joseph, whose brilliant work with Flying Lotus, Shabazz Palaces, and Beyoncé is evidence of the music video’s fertility. Or we could look to Melina Matsoukas, of “Formation” fame, and to Hiro Murai, the director of the television series “Atlanta,” who got his start directing videos for Earl Sweatshirt, Childish Gambino, and Flying Lotus. (Further illustrating Jafa’s “black” aesthetic theory, Murai is not black.).
If there is a second act for Jafa as a cinematographer, it’s these Solange videos, which, like “Daughters of the Dust,” are products of collaborative work helmed by a black woman, informed by a black aesthetic, and are part of a relentlessly unruly and imaginative black archive.